A caffeine hit
Coffee project and conservation
Imagine a group of conservation scientists sitting around a coffeepot one day on their morning break, and posing a riddle like something from a Dr Seuss tale. What could a good brew do to save a nice ’roo?
The answer, as it happens, is ‘quite a lot’. While it mightn’t have been a eureka moment over morning coffee, researchers in Papua New Guinea have come up with a seemingly counterintuitive plan to protect endangered Matschie’s tree kangaroos. Yes, set up a protected area – a standard in the conservation world – but then encourage local villagers to ‘exploit’ it by growing coffee. The rest, as they say, is history. The tree kangaroos are thriving, the locals have an income source, and the coffee – with its smooth body and subtle aromas of hazelnut and orange zest – is now being sold over the Pacific in the hipster cafes of Seattle. The scientists have created a caffeine hit.
The story of the ’roo and the brew started in 2009 with the establishment of YUS Conservation Area, named for three rivers (the Yopno, Uruwa and Som) in a remote region of
PNG’s Huon Peninsula. US-based Conservation International and Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle had been working on the project for a decade. The Huon Peninsula provides critical habitat for several species, including the remarkable tree kangaroo.
Declaring a conservation area that prohibits logging, mining and other activities is all very well, but it never works effectively unless locals can be convinced of its benefits – particularly in PNG, where most land remains under local ownership.
Some 12,000 villagers inhabit 35 villages in the YUS region, so it was vital that they could draw sustainable benefits from the conservation area. The solution was to create a strongly protected core in this mountainous landscape, surrounded by more flexible, mixed-use buffer zones that local communities could put to environmentally friendly use.
Small-scale farming was one such use, and already practised across the Huon Peninsula. Coffee growing wasn’t necessarily the obvious choice of crop, however. True, the rich soils, climate and altitude all favoured coffee, but coffee farming had been tried and abandoned in the 1950s because of the challenges of transporting the product to market from this rugged, road-less region. That coffee was, however, directed at the local market. This coffee would absorb the high cost of transport by light plane by being sold internationally, at a premium.
It seemed like an absurdly ambitious plan, but Woodland Park Zoo had a fortuitous advantage in hometown Seattle, coffee capital of the US and a world centre for coffee roasting and supply.
Enter Caffe Vita Coffee Roasting Company, founded in Seattle in 1995 and one of the pioneers of the ‘ farm direct’ movement, which seeks to develop long-term, mutually beneficial relationships between farmers and businesses. It was already dealing with small-scale, sustainable coffee growers in far-flung places, and quickly became interested in the idea of YUS coffee.
“Caffe Vita stepped up not only to provide the structure and market support, but they even came with us to Papua New Guinea to meet the farmers, train them on coffee cultivation techniques and help them improve their product to the sensibilities of the gourmet Seattle coffee market,” explains Dr Lisa Dabek, director of the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program ( TKCP).
The YUS Conservation Coffee Project thus became a joint effort between conservation groups, PNG’s Coffee Industry Corporation and Caffe Vita. Some 400 families were trained in coffee farming and processing, and improved drying conditions for the coffee beans were established. “The farmers of YUS have shown remarkable progress toward implementing the changes necessary to improve yields, and, more importantly,
the quality of their coffee,” comments Daniel Shewmaker, Caffe Vita’s coffee buyer. “Our goal is the continual refinement of these farming and processing practices.”
The first-ever direct trade cash crop in the YUS region began to flourish. In early 2012 the first 22 bags of coffee were shipped to Seattle and sold both in drink form and as beans for retail sale. The coffee has a flavour that Caffe Vita describes as mellow, honey-like and nutty. Australian online retailer Jasper Coffee describes it as ‘sweet creamy biscuit praline’ with ‘hints of deep toffee chocolate’.
It isn’t just the tastebuds of Seattleites that have benefited. Local PNG hip pockets have benefited, too, in a remote region where villagers have few viable sources of income. Better technical knowledge and access to an international market have seen their earnings increase 60 per cent since the inception of the coffee project in 2011; the money is used to buy household goods and provide access to better education and health care.
Morobe Province, in which YUS Conservation Area lies, has leapt up the list of coffee-producing provinces in PNG, which the Coffee Industry Corporation says is due, among other reasons, to partnerships with organisations such as the TKCP and the determination of Morobe farmers to sell their coffee in high-value international coffee markets. In 2014, the innovative project was vindicated when the TKCP was award a prestigious Equator Prize by the United Nations for this sustainable local development project.
The coffee project continues to grow. “Through this process we have been warmly welcomed into the YUS community. It is an honour and privilege to roast this remarkable coffee and share in creating a better future for their families and the conservation of their land,” says Dabek. We might suppose that the scientists have benefited too, as they sit around their coffeepot, inhaling the mellow, nutty aroma of kopi
YUS and waiting for that caffeine kick to provide their minds with the next bright idea.
Local PNG hip pockets have benefited. Better technical knowledge and access to an international market have seen their earnings increase 60 per cent since the inception of the coffee project in 2011.
Fruits of labour ... Tep Tep villagers with coffee cherries (opposite page); tree kangaroo (above); a handful of freshly picked coffee berries (above left); YUS locals (above).